Equal Justice

What Makes a Vote? Discussing America’s Electoral System

by Emma Gomez

On January 26th, the Roosevelt Institute gathered to ask the question: What Makes a Vote? With the Iowa caucus less than a week away, it seemed only right that the first discussion of the spring semester focused on this contemporary issue. While most would argue that they have an educated understanding of the presidential election process, the discussion proved that there were many details of the process that members were not aware of and a lot of area for policy recommendations. To address these issues, Outreach Director Ricardo Jaramillo (CC ’19) and Treasurer Emma Cloyd (BC ’19) began the discussion by separating the details of the process into four distinct categories: voter ID and registration, caucuses vs. primaries, delegates and super delegates, and voting scheduling.

In 2007, the New York Times reported only 120 cases of voter fraud out of the millions of citizens that cast a ballot that year. Despite the small percentage of the population taking part in this wrongdoing, the demand for stricter voter ID laws from conservative lawmakers has resurfaced as a hot topic in the upcoming election. Moreover, demand for policies to increase voter turnout have emerged in recent years, as 24% of the eligible population of voters are not registered.

Members first put to rest the controversy over voter ID laws, explaining that they were a non-issue created to exclude minorities and lower class citizens from democratic processes. To increase voter turnout, members suggested online or automatic registration as effective policies to streamline the process and make it more accessible in a country dominated by technology. The idea of same-day registration was also offered as a way for citizens to be able to participate in the election without having to remember to register 60 days before they’re scheduled to cast a ballot.

The discussion then moved on to an explanation between a caucus and a primary. Ricardo and Emma described how caucuses and primaries both involve selecting delegates for candidates, but in different ways. During a caucus, people go to a meeting and discuss the candidates before casting an informal vote. While in a primary, voters submit actual ballots as they participate in a sort of preliminary election. There was debate between members over which style of election they preferred. Those who favored the caucus system advocated for its focus on discussion while those who preferred the primary favored the way it gave voters a chance to actually cast ballots rather than simply claiming they support a candidate.

The discourse then transitioned into the open vs. closed primary/caucus system. In an open primary/caucus, voters are not required to declare party affiliations while casting a ballot as they are in a closed system. The members who were in favor of the open system spoke to how declaring party affiliation increases partisanship while those who were fond of the closed system explained how party members could sabotage the votes of a candidate from another party in their state if their candidate was secure.

The participation of super delegates was another contentious discussion topic. Super delegates, unlike regular delegates, are not required to support the candidates that win their respective states. Given that they are usually either party officials or members of Congress, some members of the group decided that their experience was necessary to ensure the candidate who would work best within the system gets the position, while others argued their participation was completely undemocratic.

Finally, the discussion ended with discourse over front-loading, or the idea that candidates who win early caucuses and primaries will gain momentums that last throughout the election season. Some members offered the idea of switching around the order of the state primaries and caucuses in order to ensure that states with varying interests could have the focus and coverage that the initial states enjoy.

Ultimately, it seems that these large scale election reforms will take years to bring to fruition and what policy makers should be doing now is ensuring that the current system continues to be fair and allowing all eligible voters to participate.

Bail Reform and Plea Bargaining

by Olivia Ghosh

The intricacies of the United States’s legal system are further complicated by two key issues: bail reform and plea bargaining. Current bail and plea bargaining practices may infringe upon 5th and 6th amendment rights as well as the principle that an accused criminal is “innocent until proven guilty.” The Roosevelt Institute spent an hour on Tuesday, November 24, discussing the various complexities, consequences, and alternatives to the two practices.

The discussion began with an overview of bail and the history of monetary bail. Monetary bail is a relatively recent installation in the justice system. Release on recognizance — a contractual agreement to appear in court — has historically been the favored practice. However, the crux of the issue lies in the question of whether holding an individual pretrial is a violation of the presumption of innocence principle. When one is arrested, a judge determines a monetary value for bail based on the likelihood that the accused will flee or pose a threat to society. This amount must be paid in order for the accused to be released before his or her trial.

The discussion focused on several aspects of bail. First, many participants agreed that monetary bail is problematic because low income, minority groups are often the ones unable to pay bail. In this case, they go to jail and may lose their jobs in their absence even in the case of total innocence. To prevent this, some members suggested that judges should take into account the accused’s income before determining bail in order to set an amount that is fair but is not impossible. However, many people found bail to be a necessary evil in preventing potential criminals from fleeing. Despite this, there was enthusiasm for proposed bail alternatives to protect the rights of the accused including risk assessment programs and other pretrial programs that cost less than holding people in jail.

When the discussing plea bargains, many similar issues were raised. A plea bargain happens when a defendant pleads guilty to a crime in exchange for a lesser sentence. Most of the cases in the justice system are never brought to trial because of plea bargains. Because the courts and accompanying public defenders struggle to process their current caseload, much of the group agreed that some form of plea bargains are necessary. This position was countered by members who noted that many things are unjustly criminalized in the United States and that the issue would be partially solved if fewer things were illegal. However, in our current pretrial system, low income people are often coerced by overworked prosecutors into taking plea bargains when they would perhaps have gone to court had they more knowledge or better lawyers. To combat this, some members proposed that the prosecution should be legally obliged to disclose all evidence to the accused.

The final thoughts of the night circled back to a few key policy changes. First, many people mentioned giving public defenders a lot more funding in order to provide low income people with counsel at bail hearings and better defense against plea bargains. Many members also mentioned decriminalization as a solution to these issues among others.

Separation of Church and State

by Ricardo Jarmillo

On September 29th, the Roosevelt Institute gathered to discuss policies surrounding religious liberty in the United States. The separation of church and state has been a notoriously difficult concept to translate into policy. The First Amendment of the United States Constitution states that “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof”–but what does that really mean? To answer that question, co-directors of the Equal Justice Center, Jay Rappaport and Rachel Knowles, led a discussion that explored the limits of religious liberty laws and deliberated over possible policies regarding the regulation of religious activities and institutions.

Different countries regulate religious expression and religious groups in a variety of ways. In France, for example, the French parliament voted to ban the wearing of veils that cover the face in public spaces as well as all “ostensibly” religious signs in schools. Many expressed discontent over these laws, arguing that they disproportionately targeted Muslims and other religious minority groups. In the United States, however, the Religious Freedom Restoration Acts (RFRA) mandate that the government cannot violate an individual’s religious expression unless it has a compelling government interest and is acting in the least intrusive manner possible. Furthermore, the Religious Freedom Restoration Acts prevent an individual from losing employment based on personal religious expression. Originally passed by the Clinton Administration in the 90s, the RFRAs were intended to protect religious minorities, particularly Native American groups, from religious discrimination.

Although the RFRAs were intended for religious minorities, nowadays many Christian groups invoke the RFRAs to avoid compliance with federal regulations. The Supreme Court has ruled on several conflicts between government policy and religious expression. In Burwell vs. Hobby Lobby Stores Inc, the Supreme Court ruled that “closely held” corporations can be exempt from a law that they object to on a religious basis. In this case, Hobby Lobby was protesting the provision in the Affordable Care Act that would have required them to include coverage of contraception as part of their health care plans. However, more recently, the Supreme Court has ruled that homosexuals in the United States are legally entitled to marriage. Kim Davis, a county clerk from Kentucky, was briefly jailed for refusing to sign the marriage licenses of same-sex couples, claiming that her religious beliefs were being violated. These conflicting results from the clashes between laws and religious liberty only further contribute to the blurry division between the two.

In the discussion, members questioned the tax-exempt status that is held by churches and other religious groups. Churches can file 501c3 forms to avoid taxation and to receive tax-deductible donations so long as they are “religious, educational, scientific,…or charitable.” While churches cannot attempt to influence legislation or participate in political campaigns under current regulations, many members expressed skepticism that churches are currently adhering to such regulations. Members also questioned the strength and toughness of these regulations given that in 1993, the IRS awarded the Church of Scientology tax-exempt status. The Church of Scientology is accused of allegedly physically and mentally harming its members and holds millions of dollars’ worth of luxury real estate assets all across the world. Moreover, it is estimated that approximately $71 billion worth of taxes is being lost by the amount of churches that are tax-exempt.

Members debated whether or not churches should be tax-exempt and if there should be laws that allow for religious exemptions in policy. On the question of the tax-exempt status of churches, many members concurred that there should be some form of tax on churches, particularly on churches that are very wealthy and hold a lot of valuable real estate assets. A policy that would cap the amount of real estate assets that a church can own was proposed. Other members proposed a regressive income tax on churches, trying to find a balance between poor, rural churches that depend on their tax-exempt status to stay open and rich churches that could afford to pay more. On whether laws should allow for religious exemptions, it seemed as if the group was somewhat more divided. Many referenced the bakery in Indiana that refused to bake a cake for a gay wedding. Some claimed that the bakery’s refusal to bake the cake was an unacceptable form of discrimination and that businesses exist solely for profit, not for the advancement of a particular moral agenda. Others, however, referenced the Muslim flight attendant who was fired for refusing to serve alcohol, claiming an overbearing drive for secularism unfairly affects religious minorities, many of whom already suffer from other forms of discrimination. Ultimately, however, it seems as if the debate about the line between religious liberty and the advancement of public policy will continue to hang over future policymaking.

Uber, Airbnb, & Regulation

By Nikita Singareddy

Ever heard horror stories about an Airbnb stay gone horribly wrong? Ever look at a bad exam grade and wonder if “Uberdriver” is a viable (or secure) career path? On Feb 24th, Simon Schwartz and Jon Kroah moderated a discussion on just how responsible “peer to peer” companies should be for the well-being of their customers, and whether these companies are flouting the system or on the verge of creating a better one.

A shared economy (also known as peer to peer or collaborative economy) is a socio-economic system built around the sharing of human and physical resources (e.g., your car, your apartment). The best known “P2P” players are Uber (founded 2009, worth $41 Billion) and Airbnb (founded 2008, worth $10 Billion), who both utilize the same business model: An IT-Platform is developed, built and maintained by a third party but the function of the platform is to enable sharing economy activities. This is known as a “two-sided market.”

At the meeting we discussed the benefits of a shared economy which included revenues passing through the shared economy directly into people’s wallets. Some members voiced that the sharing economy facilitates the use of underutilized resources, especially to the benefit independent workers in the labor force like teachers, minimum wage workers, and people with multiple jobs. However, some attendees worried that Airbnb and Uber bypassed laws and restrictions that are state/nationally mandated for hotels/motels and taxi services. For example,  the New York State AG released a report that concluded 72% of Airbnb rentals violated state zoning laws or regulations, specifically involving breaches of short term leases. Moreover, Airbnb hosts face no inspections. Uber, moreover, shirks any responsibility in the suitability, legality, or ability of their third party transportation providers when peoples sign the User Agreement. Existing insurance policies also don’t offer the flexibility to protect people involved in the sharing economy, primarily because the activities they’re engaged in can straddle the line between personal use and commercial activity.

But Uber and Airbnb have responded to their critics as well. Uber recently launched its Rideshare commercial insurance plan which includes: $1 million of liability coverage per incident, $1 million of uninsured/underinsured motorist bodily injury coverage, and $50,000 of contingent comprehensive and collision insurance. Airbnb in October announced a secondary insurance product that is free for hosts and in some cases offer coverage up to $2M. Amsterdam became the the first “Airbnb-friendly” city while Paris passed a law allowing city inspectors to check rental homes and Berlin banned the company entirely. People also worried about “Price Surging,” Uber’s algorithm to detect changes in supply-demand and change prices  accordingly. As a result, fares frequently soar during times of peak demand—for instance, some riders on New Year’s Eve 2011 paid roughly 7x normal fares, and fares also increased during the recent hostage crisis in Sydney when people fled the area. Some claim these rates can get unethically high; Uber recently pledged to cap rate hikes during disasters and donate 20% of revenues from those rides to the American Red Cross.


Columbia Voting Week: Joelle Gamble on the Challenges of Democratic Engagement

Columbia’s Annual Voting Week took place last week, kicking off the Equal Justice Center’s yearly initiative! On Thursday, October 9th, Joelle Gamble, National Director of the Roosevelt Institute Campus Network, led a discussion with Columbia students on “Challenges of Democratic Engagement“. The group examined policy implications and historical as well as present day examples of the changing voter landscape. Our conversation focused on a number of questions: what are the ramifications for communities, and the U.S. as a whole, when certain people do not engage in the political process?; how can we develop solutions to our current civic process?; is just voting enough?

The history of the democratic process has been shaped by many movements from the Enlightenment to Progressivism and the Populist Era.  By looking at civic engagement as a fluid moral imperative, a path with technological and generational opportunities, clearly experimentations in democracy matter! But do these experimentations come from political institutions themselves? Our group looked at a variety of solutions to increase diverse engagement such as civics classes, automatic voter registration, measures against gerrymandering, and locally-based work such as participatory budgeting/involvement at the municipal level.

Take a look at the fact sheet for the discussion here: What is Civic Participation and Why is It Important

Got any refreshing approaches to civic engagement? Comment here and make sure to reach out to me or Joelle – we’d love to hear from you!

Nikita Singareddy, Equal Justice Center Leader

Privacy and Security in the Digital Age

On September 23, the Roosevelt Institute held its second meeting of the year, “Privacy and Security in the Digital Age.” With another strong attendance, the lively Equal Justice Center discussion commenced with the recent celebrity photo leak as its linchpin. A number of members spoke about the world of digital sexism on the deep web and referenced anarchic message-board site 4Chan. With the nude leak allegedly stemming from privacy breaches in Apple’s iCloud, our group discussed what it means to save personal information onto someone else’s property (especially when it feels like an extension of our personal computers). Many in the room agreed that individuals take a risk when uploading anything to a cloud, but that a cloud seems as though it would have more protection than uploading onto the Internet. Here, we can make a careful distinction between the Internet and cloud. Web hosting is the business of providing server space; your content and applications are uploaded into an Internet server which is then shared with other customers who also use the web host. Cloud computing, however, is data storage that simply uses the Internet as the communication medium to deliver its services.

The group discussed the pros and cons of both. Some echoed the belief that businesses using cloud computing need to better protect user data from hackers. For web hosting, a number of people thought we would never get to a point where the Internet is safe. One reason comes from the question – do the things we post online belong to us or someone else? Most encouraged simpler Terms and Conditions to properly consent/be aware of how their data is collected, shared and, in some cases, sold. In the wake of data breaches and big tech companies like Google, Yahoo, & Facebook making billions from data mining, some asked if we’ll ever be the only owners of our data. Should we be able to sell information ourselves and reap the profits personally?

The conversation naturally led to the National Security Agency’s once-secret program of collecting information. Several attendees referenced this as a double-edged sword: the government is meant to protect us with cyber security, yet it still gathers our information. In 2012 alone, Google, Microsoft, and Twitter handed over 70+% of their user data at the request of the U.S. government. This raised the question of whether online privacy/security was a fundamental right. The probe, which obviously holds much gravity, was never answered. A number of people thought that laws will just never be able to keep up with the fast-paced and ever-changing ways of the Internet; others believed in policy to nab hackers, better protect customer data, and restrict the government from accessing private information. For when we take a look at the following statistics, Internet security is clearly of significant importance to our increasingly tech-addled world:

  • 68% of internet users believe current laws are not good enough in protecting people’s privacy online and 24% believe current laws provide reasonable protections.
  • 86% of internet users have taken steps online to remove or mask their digital footprints—ranging from clearing cookies to encrypting their email, from avoiding using their name to using virtual networks that mask their internet protocol (IP) address. 55% of internet users have taken steps to avoid observation by specific people, organizations, or the government.

Thank you to Allie O’Keefe (Healthcare Center Leader) for helping moderate. A huge shout out to those who attended the meeting and engaged in this critical discussion!

Nikita Singareddy, Equal Justice Center Leader.

HIV/AIDS Domestic Policies and Stigma

This week’s discussion on HIV/AIDS domestic policies and stigma was hosted by the Equal Justice center and the Healthcare center.

The discussion covered a variety of angles from education policies, to the effect of socio-economic status on HIV medicine access. One of the most important points brought up in the discussion was the need for better mechanisms of education to groups with high-levels of untreated HIV. Alongside multifaceted education for those with HIV as well as preventative and awareness programs for all others, subsidized treatment plans were discussed. HIV treatment is very expensive and many cannot afford it — especially minority groups and those of lower socioeconomic class, which are the groups most disproportionately affected by HIV/AIDS. On a very different point, the question of knowledge was brought up. What should a person do if they have contracted HIV from a partner who did not disclose the information prior to intercourse? Should they sue? Should they only sue if the other person did not know they HIV? Should there be a database for HIV positive people that lists other people of the same status? These are just some questions and points discussed in a very involved conversation about the possible future of HIV/AIDS in the US.

Women and the Workplace

Tonight, the Roosevelt Institute celebrated Women’s History Month by hosting a discussion on the changing role of women in the workforce. This triggered a nuanced debate on how to address the gender-wage gap, masculinity in workplace culture, and the lack of female representation in STEM fields.

Our discussion moderator presented data on how the earnings gap between men and women can be dissected into measurable skill and productivity differences as well as unexplained differences attributed to discrimination, salary negotiation practices, and other external factors. While across the board, women make 77 cents to every dollar men make on the job, when controlling for education, skill content, responsibility, and working conditions, this gap narrows to 91 cents. However, the problem of labor force discrimination remains far from being resolved. Rather than rank discrimination on the part of employers, discussion participants agreed that work-place culture, societal expectations, and systemic discrimination posed more salient roadblocks to creating an equal-playing field for men and women.

Many women make rational, autonomous choices about how they want to conduct their lives, such as getting married and having children. Lifting the punitive consequences of these decisions requires federal intervention in the form of childcare subsidization and more accommodative company policies geared towards men, such as paid paternity leave. Some noted that in several case studies, these policies failed to have a substantial effect on female labor force participation and upward mobility. One person noted how many federal policies are geared towards helping white, upper-middle income women and we as a society ignore the variety of problems of women across different cultures.

If legislation and government programs remained ineffective, many agreed the solutions had to come from lifting gender norms off conventional child-rearing methods, deconstructing the “frat” culture in male-dominated work environments, and placing the responsibilities of childcare equally on both parents. The discussion closed with many speculating on the patriarchal roots of the absence of women in STEM fields. As one person noted, statistically girls are better at math than boys up until a certain age when cultural norms are placed on them. This dynamic exists in many high earning and cutting-edge industries such as venture capital, where men are taught to “know numbers and act like animals.” The majority came to an agreement that men had an important role in changing the way they conduct themselves in the workplace and family in order to comprehensively address gender equality issues.

The Roosevelt Institute was excited to host its first joint-discussion with the Women’s History Month Committee at Columbia. We thank our fellow body member and WHMC committee member, Lesley Cordero, for coordinating the logistics of this event. Any questions regarding content of our discussion can be directed towards our moderator, Sharin Khander, at sk3343@barnard.edu.

Legalizing Prostitution

On Tuesday, February 11th, the Roosevelt Institute had another great policy discussion – this time about legalizing prostitution. AJ, our Vice President, led the club in a thought-provoking conversation. The question of legalizing prostitution is one with several facets.

People raised several interesting questions. For instance, in prostitution, does the woman (or man) engaging in sex work become the good in the transaction? What ethical implications does this have? We also discussed the importance of the language surrounding the issue and the difference between the terms “sex worker” and “prostitute.” In terms of practical policy implications, we discussed what type or types of prostitution should be legalized. One way to determine what legal prostitution could look like in the U.S. is to look at places where it is already legal, such as the Netherlands. Legalizing prostitution would have impact sex workers’ abilities to unionize and obtain benefits from their work. Other questions included what the effects on human trafficking would be if prostitution were legalized. We also questioned whether prostitution could be legalized in the United States – in other words, is the country “ready” to pass an issue like this? Would it have popular support?